The Climate Corner

In our personal, business and political lives, we constantly confront the need to act responsibly and live within our means. This requires avoiding waste, conserving scarce resources and balancing budgets. While we generally think in terms of money – financial resources – when discussing these issues, the fundamental concept – the requirement that we plan for a sustainable future – is equally, and really much more important, when we think about our globe’s ability to meet our future food supply needs in the face of an ever-growing population and global warming.

Today, the imperative that we conserve our natural resources and live within the limits of those resources could not be greater. Food security is essential to peace, prosperity and ultimately, to survival. The food supply and distribution challenges we face due to an increasing world population are being compounded by the consumption demands of rapidly growing middle classes around the world. At the same time, the likely impacts of climate change on agriculture will amplify the threats to our food system, both directly through agricultural production shocks and more indirectly through impacts on distribution logistics and security, with some of the greatest threats to the world’s poorest people.

The direct impacts of climate change already include the increasing volatility and intensity of extreme weather events around the world. These impacts are predicted to increase significantly in the future. Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns, and increasing frequency and intensity of storms, have major consequences for agriculture and food systems.

In Wisconsin, the climate has become warmer and wetter in the past 60 years. Changes in future decades are expected to be even greater than those observed to date. Precipitation events are likely to be more intense, with more rainfall coming in single events, causing greater soil loss from erosion and crop damage. Freeze/thaw cycles in the spring and fall are also expected to increase, creating challenges for planting, as well harvesting Door County’s cherished fruit trees.

While agriculture has always been dependent on favorable weather conditions, the highly interconnected nature of the global food production system has created conditions where climate variability may cause food production shocks with serious societal harms. This effect has been recently observed. The food price spikes and economic downturn beginning in 2007 sparked food riots in dozens of countries leading to political unrest around the world. Resulting changes to governments have had a series of reverberations, such as the 2013 terrorist attack on a BP energy facility in Algeria where 40 oil workers were killed, the ongoing conflict in Northern Mali, the resurgence of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and others.

At no time in our history has the connection between food security and national security been more evident.

Agricultural producers recognize these challenges as acutely as any of us, more acutely than most, and are leading the way toward the development of a host of innovative solutions, many of which focus on soil, nutrient and water conservation. Farmers are already deploying strategies to improve soil health, reduce vulnerability to drought and flood, improve biodiversity on the farm, and account for weather-related risks – all while operating profitable businesses.

Future Farm and sister company Baldwin Dairy in Baldwin, Wis., efficiently combine dairying and aquaponic fish and vegetable production with energy capture from anaerobic cow manure digesters. North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown is integrating a multitude of crops and livestock to beat county production averages in both favorable and unfavorable weather years, while regenerating his soil to reduce erosion and store carbon, resist drought, improve water retention and infiltration, and support crop growth. All this is being done while reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides.

Going forward, the key insight is obvious. Agriculture is the dominant way we care for the terrestrial parts of this planet, and while efficiency is really important, there are thresholds in any system over which we’d best not go. Here in Wisconsin, our agricultural markets are global and the impacts of droughts in Russia or Syria can affect global food prices and national security, which in turn are felt in Wisconsin. Our state has always been a leader in agriculture, and today, many in Wisconsin are already committed to leading the way toward a resilient, productive and lower impact future that is well within our resource means.

Toby Lunt holds a Masters of Science in agroecology and plant pathology from UW – Madison, and a BA from Dartmouth College. He will be going to Ethiopia on a Fulbright grant this fall to work on agriculture and food security issues.

Molly Jahn is the former dean of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. Dr. Jahn is a Wisconsin Institute of Discovery Fellow and hold appointments in the Laboratory of Genetics, the Department of Agronomy, The Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and the Global Health Institute.

The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].